“I saw people who have lost everything; children who have lost their parents. But I also saw that the human spirit can be unbreakable.”
Photojournalist & Writer
On finding relationship to suffering, confronting truth, and his idea of perfect happiness.
You and I are bound by fundamental undercurrents of the human experience; building blocks of reality have been arduously meditated on over the centuries by philosophers, artists, poets and presidents, and surpass that of our own human species. What binds you and I, and everyone else is the reality that, however subtle or monumental, we all find happiness, and all suffer together.
From the violent moment of our birth into this world, we cry. As blossoming children, we begin to laugh and smile; this cycle spins – to the moment of our last breath – without cessation.
What is your relationship to suffering – of your own, and of others? And how can you find meaning in the midst of it? These are answers that each person – each generation – must discover for themselves.
One man’s decision to follow his calling has brought him face to face with some of the worst suffering known in recent times. Having travelled to over 60 countries, humbly plying his trade as a photojournalist and writer, Aleix Oriol has witnessed and documented one of the tragic consequences of war; the refugee crises that has spilled into Iraq, Syria, Greece and Lebanon to name a few.
Exposure to such distraught and loss to may lead one to question, is suffering necessary to life? Necessary or not, it exists – and yet, as Aleix has been made to understand, there is a duality to such an inescapable facet of our existence; within the rugged ruins of a devastated city, the beauty of the ordinary, everyday joys were held closer to his heart – yet – his deeply profound moments of self transcendence abroad were counterbalanced by the drudgery of everyday life back home.
Despite the tidal waves of emotion, Aleix took up the responsibility to tell the stories of those whose voices cannot be heard – truths that many of us are unwilling to face – acknowledging, in the process, that life is not about avoiding suffering, but in deciding what is worth suffering for.
Now, based in Bali, he aims to continue this calling wherever it may lead him. he is honest and true to his work – a man not concerned with grand recognition or awards. In our compelling interview, he calmly revisits his experiences and how they have seen him relate to his own suffering; leaving room to meditate on his perfect idea of happiness, his most memorable photographic moment, and how he overcame a prejudiced childhood environment.
Aleix, for those who aren’t too familiar with Photojournalism, tell us, what does a photojournalist do and why you think are they important.
A photojournalist documents what many people are not willing to document. They go the extra mile to photograph conflict and situations that aren’t really suitable for conventional journalists.
What they do is really important, especially now when so many photojournalists are being threatened by governments. Some have been killed or kidnapped. Some had their freedom taken away from them just because they wanted to inform and report on the situations. Now more than ever, they are really important.
Of course, there are many types of photojournalists, and some have their own specific focuses; refugees, injustice, or the environment for example. They shed light on any situation where people can’t really speak for themselves and don’t have a voice. It’s very important for a photojournalist to be there.
They often travel with someone who is a natural writer or a journalist, who writes the articles, while the photojournalists take the images that really strike the people. I feel that you can read an article, but without the powerful images to go with it, something will feel missing.
There are many situations today where people need to be informed and we have all these platforms that are outside mass media like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram – we have everything we need. It’s important to have people out there to tell the unbiased truth. Sometimes that’s impossible because their company heavily edits the content, but a reliable media source will tell the story as it is. That’s our goal as photojournalists – to show reality as it is.
“That’s our goal as photojournalists – to show reality as it is.”
It can sometimes be very precarious. Journalism now is not as respected or valued as before, and the money paid to freelancers today is ridiculously bad. Therefore, a lot of journalists unite and create associations so that they can promote their work together and sell their projects in a more collaborative way.
Photojournalism is also fine line to walk in terms of ethics. There are some who have no ethics at all because the pressure is so high on them to get that perfect shot without respecting the people. For example, at any given arrival spot for refugee boats, you can have up to 20 photojournalists waiting.
I saw that in Greece, where we waited for boats that were coming from Turkey. They arrived with people having spent days at sea. They were hungry, freezing and thirsty. When they arrived, some people were already pointing their huge cameras right in front of their faces to get their initial reaction upon landing.
I felt disgusted and I didn’t like that. Many were complaining about it too. It’s important to know, in any situation, that you are first a human being, then you are a photographer. These are human beings you’re documenting, not “subjects” for you to get awards or recognition.
You started as a travel photographer, what made you want to dive into photojournalism? Was there a certain key moment?
It was a coincidence actually, and it felt like a natural evolution. I was selling some articles for travel magazines at the time, and during one of the trips, I found myself in Iraq. I knew there were refugee camps around the area that I was staying in, and thought “Wow, I have to see this.”
I was already into activism and politics because I wanted to understand how and why the world works the way it does. This was an opportunity to know, first hand, what was going on in a refugee camp. I didn’t want to read anymore newspapers and see statistics because at the end of the day, these events get turned into numbers, and you feel numb after a while. All you read is “100 dead here,” or “100,000 refugees are there.” I wanted to see faces, names, families and feel their feelings.
“I wanted to see faces, names, families and feel their feelings.”
My path in photojournalism started from there, and it just took off. I spent my own money going to different places, and I wasn’t even sure that I was going to sell my work. But I found a magazine in Spain that was publishing sensitive issues like immigration in an open manner. I felt comfortable working with them and started doing it more and more.
I still do some travel photography, but I lose touch sometimes because it’s a bit too “light”, especially after doing photojournalism. I want to do something a bit more meaningful to me. Of course, if you go the extra mile, you can make amazing travel photography, but for me, it just felt like I wasn’t helping people.
As you mentioned, the transition seems pretty natural. Is that something that often happens to travel photographers?
Yes! It does. Many photojournalists are travelers first, then make the transition to focus on different issues to cover. Every year I want to go deeper and deeper into more intense environments or situations – you almost become an adrenaline junkie and want more and more!
It’s actually an interesting issue about this job – if you do it full time, you can never go back to doing anything else. The “rush” is impossible to get anywhere else, and you can end up becoming a war photographer.
Has that ever tempted you?
It did! I’m not a war photographer, but my first contact with a war zone was in Syria and that was by chance also! As always, when you start a trip, it’s very organic and you never know what’s going to happen. You evolve as your trip is evolving.
I was in Turkey, right on the border with Syria, and ended up in a community center ran by Kurdish people who were helping smuggle journalists into Syria. They were so generous, as they would just give you accommodation and tell you when it’s safe to cross. There, I met a lot of photographers and journalists; it was my first contact with real professionals working for huge agencies and media outlets.
While at the community center, on the border with Syria, we waited for a week, doing nothing but just wait, and wait. That’s the life of a journalist too. It requires a lot of patience because of the negotiations involved and the political issues. There are plenty of hours to fill.
Suddenly, we got the call and we managed to get smuggled into Syria. We were in an area that was recently liberated from ISIS and stayed there for a week. I felt bad – really, really bad. It was a shock to me because everything was devastated.
(more on the story later on the interview)
“I felt bad – really, really bad. It was a shock to me because everything was devastated.”
Every project is different, but are there certain things you always look for within yourself in every photography project?
I listen a lot to what people say when they see my work, because when you’re always looking at your own stuff, you lose perspective. I can see my work 100 times but then can’t seem to remember what my point was.
But if you ask people, they would point out one common thing, and that is that I capture feelings and emotions. The eyes of the people I capture tell a story. Even though you don’t know their story, there’s enough shown for your mind to create your own ideas about what that person is telling you. It can be pain, fear, or joy. If you don’t know how to capture that, then I think your photos will be empty.
So what I aspire to do is to simply capture emotion. I want the photos to have a voice. If there wasn’t any text, I want the photos to speak for themselves.
“The eyes of the people I capture tell a story.”
In your own opinion, what do you hope your photographs can contribute to society as a whole?
I just want people to know the unbiased truth. I’ve done conferences in small community centers – in neighborhoods with a lot of working class people who sometimes can’t afford go to an exhibition, which can cost a bit of money to go to. These are humble conferences where I want people to see the whole picture.
99% of where they get their information is from the mainstream media, and so in the exhibitions, they realize many things that are actually happening in different countries.
I also did exhibitions with the local town council with official money involved. This meant that some politicians came into my conferences. I try not to be too politically correct in front of them and I tell it as it is. It can be uncomfortable.
“I try not to be too politically correct in front of them and I tell it as it is. It can be uncomfortable.”
Ultimately, my responsibility as a person going to these places is to show where we can be doing more. I’m just trying to get people to think outside of the box.
The current system we live in makes reality become more uniform, where we have to think the same way, watch the same things, eat the same things. There’s so much more out there.
You have to think for yourself, and if you see something wrong, say it. Don’t be afraid.
What is one of your most memorable photographic moments?
For the simplicity of it, it is the photo of the girl looking right at the camera from the tent. I was walking around a camp in Iraq and there was a little girl. She was silent but she was following me around and I was talking to her. She would just smile.
When it came to that moment when I saw her looking out her tent and the lighting was good, I prepared the camera. But then, she stopped smiling for the picture. There was suddenly a slight intensity to her look – one of a kid who has been through a lot.
That’s one of the moments that stuck to my mind. It was so simple, yet the deep connection was there, despite her being someone who I couldn’t communicate with. It was a humbling experience.
We all have our inner child inside of us. As you can see in my pictures, kids are a very important part of my photography. For some reason, children can move you more so than an adult would.
Children are so pure, and people become deeply touched when seeing children go through horrible situations like that because they haven’t developed the tools to cope with them.
“We all have our inner child inside of us. As you can see in my pictures, kids are a very important part of my photography.”
You’ve travelled to over 60 countries and there’s a lot information to process when travelling and photographing in environments outside your comfort zone. Is this adaptability something you’ve always naturally had?
I was very fearful as a kid; very shy and always afraid. That’s why I started travelling – to get out of my comfort zone. I started travelling when I was really young like any other backpacker from Europe who wanted to see the world.
I had then developed the urge to go off the beaten path and explore places that were away from the mainstream spots. At some point, I knew that I had to somehow use these skills that I’ve developed travelling for my photography projects.
But as a photojournalist, sometimes you get to a place where you have no idea what to do or where to go, which is why it’s crucial to find a “fixer” or a local who is more knowledgeable, and that helps you to adapt.
“I was very fearful as a kid; very shy and always afraid.”
What are some of the self-limiting beliefs you had to change over the years to become the person you are today?
We all are defined by our environment to some degree. I was born and raised in Spain – a catholic country. My parents and grandparents lived through a dictatorship in a very tight regime. This defined them and their beliefs that they passed on to me. That means that I was brought into this world with beliefs that are already engrained in me without even knowing that they were there.
Spain was not as cosmopolitan as it is today. 30 or 40 years ago, all you saw were Spanish people of different origin. There was no diversity, and that limits you because you never see anything different.
So growing up in that environment can make a little bit discriminatory, especially as a kid soaking it all in. In Spain, for example, gypsies were looked down upon.
When I started developing myself as a young adult, I saw a lot of prejudice within that way of life, and so I started to remove myself from it. Travelling opened my mind and perspectives. My prejudice and preconceptions about social class and social status were blown away. I thank migration because it managed to turn Spain into a multicultural place.
And what about your current perspective on Fear?
Fear is the key to everything when developing yourself as a person. It can limit you and prevent you from doing what you love. Fearing that you’re not good enough, and that you’re not special in any way – for me I’m still struggling with that! Even when I travel to new places, I’m still scared in some way.
The truth is, all these insecurities will always be there. But you have to learn to use that to your benefit. It’s about acknowledging, “Yes, I am very scared, but I will go.” And when you’re there, it becomes, “I’m still scared, but I’m here.” It’s a difficult process to go through, but if you can do it, you will be liberated. You work hard, but then welcome the results that come.
“It’s a difficult process to go through, but if you can do it, you will be liberated.”
Suffering is something we all share on different levels. How has confronting the suffering you’ve seen during your time in Iraq, Syria and other places changed your relationship with it?
As you’ve said, we all suffer in different ways in life. But when you’ve witnessed the kind of suffering that is life threatening – situations where people have lost everything (as I have seen), then you’re forced to find a healthy way to integrate it into your life.
It’s really tough, especially in times where you can’t do anything directly about it. I didn’t know how to deal with it back then; I was taking photos and talking to people – soaking everything in like a sponge.
I saw people who have lost everything; children who have lost their parents. But I also saw that the human spirit can be unbreakable. Despite losing everything, they had the will to persevere and continue to survive and rebuild their cities.
So there’s always a duality. Despite the situation, they were very welcoming and grateful that we were there. But they were also wondering why we came, and why we weren’t at our homes. My heart was mixed with pain and joy.
“I saw people who have lost everything; children who have lost their parents. But I also saw that the human spirit can be unbreakable.”
I felt very anxious a lot of the time. You don’t know how safe it is. There could be an attack at any moment because there were still a lot of hidden ISIS members around the city even after it was liberated, and they didn’t know how to find them.
There were emotional moments where people would break down in front of you, and you can’t help but do the same if you really connect to them on an emotional level, instead of just being a person there asking questions. I’ve seen journalists who do that and just go. For me, however, it was about being with the people.
I’ve had my moments, and in the end of the day, I learned that if you want to be in photojournalism, you have to have some strength and skills to process these situations, because there is a price to pay. Your heart can grow cold like a rock, but it can break down to make a new one. That’s what happened to me at least. But for some people, it can be the other way around.
“Your heart can grow cold like a rock, but it can break down to make a new one.”
Since then, I try my best to be more grateful and make everything relative; not to get stuck on petty issues that I shouldn’t really care about. Not being able to afford the latest shoes, or buying a new motorcycle – they don’t really matter to me. What matters is having people that truly care about you, doing things that you love, and being kind to others.
I like to think that I have always been compassionate, but there were times where I’ve turned my head and looked the other way, because it’s easier, and you don’t want to suffer. But when you’ve seen real suffering, you can’t help but notice the small ways in which we suffer in our every day life. It made me want to help people more.
So, when heading out to these places, there is an acceptance you have to carry – that these things happen and you will see them?
Totally. Sometimes it’s a selfless thing to do. I’m going to put my life and my mental health in jeopardy so that other people’s voices are heard. I was willing to pay the price, and I did. But looking back, I was just doing my little part.
After being in a situation like that for the first time, what did it feel like to then come back?
I was supposed to head to Georgia and Armenia after Syria, but the shock from the experience caused me to just return to Turkey and book a flight back home to Barcelona. When I came back to Turkey, I initially thought, “If I knew what I was getting into in the first place, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Looking back at the time doesn’t make me feel “happy,” because nobody can be happy after being in a place like that. But as I said, I feel like I did my little part, and that was worth it.
The issue of coming back happens a lot with war photographers. They have to deal with a lot of mental health issues after absorbing so many things. For me, it was difficult in the weeks after going to Syria. I was still suffering from the experience from a bit of trauma of course. I stayed flat on the sofa for two weeks.
“It was difficult in the weeks after going to Syria.”
It was bad, not because the entire experience was intense, but it was addicting. As I said before, it can leave you wanting for more. Crossing borders and having tanks pointing their guns at you – how can you possibly find that in your everyday life? How can you find the same emotions while doing something greater than yourself?
I’m not saying I have delusions of grandeur, I’m just a normal person. But in terms of personal development, coming back home felt like nothing made sense anymore. I was in a very intense situation where every experience was life-changing, and now everything was the same.
How do you deal with that when people don’t understand what you’ve been through? Many people enjoyed hearing my stories for about 15 minutes, but then quickly wanted to change the subject after being confronted with this reality.
“I was in a very intense situation where every experience was life-changing, and now everything was the same.”
Despite coming face to face with suffering on that level, what were some moments of joy that you’ve experienced there?
They were the little moments of normality these people had within very abnormal life circumstances. Nothing is normal living in a refugee camp with all the tents, but you find joy when you share a little moment playing football, being silly with the kids, or playing backgammon with a father, or talking to the women of the family if they are open enough to talk to you.
Having this closeness is the key. It makes us forget that we’re here and what has happened, and I feel happy.
Of course I can’t speak for all of them. Many are still extremely traumatized and don’t want to talk, but there are little “capsules of happiness” that came from those who were so generous and open to foreigners.
What have you been more aware of in your own life as a result of your experience?
I’ve been made more aware of how lucky we are to live in a place where there are no bombs falling from the sky or shootings on the street. I have to remind myself of that, because we all can get very spoilt. Sometimes I feel guilty for having all these things, but I need to deal with that properly by just appreciating the little things, like eating or going to the cinema with a friend.
“Sometimes I feel guilty for having all these things, but I need to deal with that properly by just appreciating the little things.”
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
This is tough! But for me, it’s very cliché, and that is that happiness is not a destination, but more of a journey. No one is going to be happy all the time, and for me, happiness a succession of little moments that make me feel grateful and fulfilled. These small moments give you the will to keep going.
Happiness to me, is also accepting what you have, and not demanding for more than you can handle. I’ve had my problems with that; in trying to reach too much too fast.
In this time of social media, there’s always the pressure to be the best at what you do; we are fed the idea that we have to do big and grandiose things. This competitiveness brings misery and frustration because not all of us can be the best – so why not just be who you are, and enjoy it?
“Why not just be who you are, and enjoy it?”
What would you like to change about the world for the better?
Inequality, injustice and greed. If we can limit those, then we can fix a lot of problems.
What is one piece of advice you would give to those wanting to go into photojournalism?
Don’t do it! But if you decide to anyways, persevere. You have to be really passionate about it because it’s going to give you a lot of challenges; mentally and economically. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to take a lot of time. Many doors will be closed, but the more you work the more they will open.
If you could describe living in Indonesia in one word, what would it be?
Comfortable, and stimulating! I know that’s two words, but that’s what I’d use.
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